Sunil Bharti Mittal, the founder of Bharti Enterprises. Photo: AFP

Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel will soon become the largest shareholder in the UK-based satellite communications company OneWeb as it plans to invest an additional US$500 million.

OneWeb aims to deliver broadband satellite internet around the world through its fleet of low-Earth orbit satellites. It had launched 36 satellites on May 28, taking its total to 218 in-orbit satellites. The UK company announced plans to enter the Indian market by 2022.

Low-Earth orbit satellites are positioned about 500-2,000 kilometers from Earth, while stationary orbit satellites are placed approximately 36,000km away. As signals travel faster through space than through fiber-optic cables, they can disrupt the existing business of ground-based networks.

On the flip side, these satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kilometers per hour and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes. As a result, they have direct contact with a land transmitter only for a short period of time. Hence companies need a massive number of low earth orbit satellite fleets and heavy capital investment.

With the latest investment, Bharti Airtel’s stake in OneWeb will rise to 38.6% and the overall investment will touch $1 billion. The UK government, Eutelsat and SoftBank will own 19.3% each.

Bharti Airtel’s overseas arm Bharti Global will be completing the transaction in the second half of this year. Eutelsat also plans to invest $550 million in OneWeb.

Last year, OneWeb was rescued by the UK government and Bharti Global from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company has so far attracted an investment of $2.4 billion with no debt.

Bharti Airtel’s executive chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal noted that the company represents a “unique opportunity” for investors at a key moment in the commercialization of space.

“With its Global ITU Low Earth Orbit Spectrum priority, telco partnerships, successful launch momentum and reliable satellites, OneWeb is ready to serve the vital needs of high-speed broadband connectivity for those who have been left behind,” he added.

He felt these satellites will cater to areas that cannot be reached by fiber and spectrum services. Hence OneWeb’s target market will therefore be rural populations and military units operating away from urban areas.

OneWebb competes with Starlink, a venture led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Starlink now has 1,385 satellites in orbit. The other players include Telesat from Canada and Project Kuiper, recently launched by Amazon.